How Mashable took user-generated content to create an animated story about Syria
When Louise Roug first saw the storyboards for Mashable's animation on a city in Syria, they were just rough outlines. Then the animators started filling in the color.
"That's when I completely recognized parts of Syria that I've been to," said Roug, Mashable's global news editor.
On Tuesday, Mashable published "Raqqa: An Inside Story." The project includes a longform piece and an animation (with an Arabic translation) that were created with verified user-generated content. Both tell the story of one young Syrian man and how his life and the life of Raqqa changed as ISIS took over.
Roug, who worked as a war correspondent and lived in Baghdad from 2004 to 2007, also reported from Syria. She knows how difficult and dangerous the country has become for journalists.
Syria ranks 177 of 180 on Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index. Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 82 journalists have been killed in Syria since 1992, but those killings didn't start until 2011. CPJ also reports that many Syrian journalists are fleeing the country. Now, there's less news coming out of the country — less images, less details, less context.
"We just didn't have eyes anymore on what was going on in Syria," Roug said.
But there has been one small window looking in — Syrian citizens are still sharing their stories. It isn't hard to get the sense that horrifying things are happening there, particularly in Raqqa.
But the story has been unfolding for years. And because of that, it can be easy for people to get used to. Roug wanted to create a project that would remind people why they should care about the city again, and she wanted to show it to them in a new and visual way.
"That was really the intent from the beginning," she said. "...We wanted to make it visual again for people."
When she worked at Storyful, Megan Specia watched and verified user-generated content out of Syria. And sometimes, it came from Raqqa. Specia used open-source tools, including Google Maps, to date, geolocate and corroborate what she saw.
From Raqqa, much of that came from Naem Square.
"You could actually physically see this central square changing with time," said Specia, Mashable's assistant realtime news editor.
When Roug approached Specia with the idea of telling a visual story about Syria in a different way, Specia thought of that square and harnessing UGC to tell its story.
She began about six months ago, poring back through videos and images from the country. Specia had followed the work of the activist group, Raqqa's Being Slaughtered Silently, and knew that while it had a clear point of view, it also created verifiable, reliable UGC. She spoke with several members of the group before finding Ibrahim al-Raqqawi (which translates to "from Raqqa.") He lives in Turkey now, but Mashable didn't use his real name because his family still lives in Raqqa. Through him, Specia found someone who could talk about the changes he'd seen in his hometown since ISIS took over.
There's a moment in the story and the animation that she remembers verifying in 2013, when the massive statue of Bashar al-Assad's father was pulled down in Naem Square. When she interviewed al-Raqqawi, he remembered it, too. He was there.
Mashable Collective, which works with mixed media across Mashable's departments, had never created a project off the news like this.
"You don't often get to do this kind of stuff with the really, really heavy news stories," said Maya Tanaka, a producer at Mashable Collective, "and so often the heavy news stories are the best stories."
Tanaka worked with James Dybvig and Sam Stringer-Hye on the project. They had hours of transcripts from Specia's Skype interviews with al-Raqqawi and footage from the UGC out of Raqqa.
"We wanted to make a really visual, beautiful piece to do justice to the story without making it seem too light," Tanaka said.
For "Raqqa: An Inside Story," Dybvig drew the story piece by piece so that Stringer-Hye could animate them independently of each other. When a few things were missing from the story that they couldn't find through UGC, they created transitions (like the image of Assad in front of bars) using stop motion.
Another concern, Tanaka said, was making something that seemed believable. They toned down colors and added textures that fit better with Raqqa, while working to keep some elements of what the city was before ISIS took over. And since they couldn't use al-Raqqawi's voice, the team hired a Syrian actor to do the voiceover.
The animation process took a lot of time, Roug said, much more than just writing a story, but she was amazed that people who hadn't been to Syria could create a representation of the country that she recognized.
"What was fun about working with those guys is they have a completely different approach to storytelling," she said.
And starting today, Mashable will distribute and target the animation to Arabic-speaking audiences, particularly in the Middle East.
"I would like Syrians also to see this," Roug said, "to see that we still cover this and still care about what's going on."
For days before "Raqqa: An Inside Story," was published, Roug had nightmares that they missed a detail or got something wrong.
"I think what you're trying to get at is an underlying truth," she said, "but you also want to make sure that the details are right."
They fact-checked each frame several times against the verified UGC and their knowledge of the region. And the animation is simple, purposefully.
"It was really important for us to have a very straightforward, simple story," Roug said, "because it's very complicated and complex."
Reporting al-Raqqawi's story and seeing it in the animation brought the story back to life for Specia, who has followed what's happening in Syria for years.
"A lot of times, we forget that this is a city that people live in and have lived in for thousands of years," she said.
"What we tend to forget, and I remember this from Baghdad, is that these places were normal places at one point."
Want to know more about verifying user-generated content? Poynter's News University has a Webinar called "Don’t Get Fooled Again: Best Practices for Online Verification."